Smart farmers

Background

Hybrid wheat set to transform crop yield and quality

Hybrid wheat varieties being developed specifically by the collaborative team behind Bayer’s UK hybrid wheat programme will be launched in the next 6 or 7 years.

Their arrival in 2023-24 is expected to be accompanied by yield and grain quality improvements over conventional wheat, as well as greater consistency and the opportunity to include added value traits.

See also: Gene editing: What can it deliver for agriculture?

These traits will help hybrids cope with environmental stresses, such as heat or drought tolerance, but may also add herbicide tolerance and specific pest/disease resistance.


Tackling production challenges

Once available, hybrid varieties will be part of the mix of genetic and chemical solutions that wheat production needs, as it faces a whole host of global challenges, including climate change, rising demand and competition from other crops, Bayer believes.

“Hybrid wheat will allow farmers to be much smarter about what they do,” says the company’s head of seeds in Northern Europe Adrian Cottey.

“We will see the strategic use of genetics on-farm, which together with improved agronomy and digital tools, will transform wheat growing.”

Wheat has been missing out on investments

In terms of investment, wheat has been missing out, with crops such as maize receiving 4 times as much development money, he continues.

“That is now changing, with the realisation that hybrid wheat offers the opportunity to create more yield potential, as well as to achieve that potential on-farm.”

Breeding stations

Proof of that investment comes in the form of 7 hybrid wheat breeding stations established by Bayer:

  • 3 in the US
  • 3 in Europe
  • 1 in Australia

“We’re in a hurry,” admits Mr Cottey. “The location of these facilities reflects the parts of the world where hybrid wheat has an obvious place.”

Growers keen to take advantage of their development will have to be prepared to grow hybrid wheat varieties on suitable sites and in the right way, he stresses, or they could be in for a disappointment.

“They are unlikely to be the answer to every problem,” he says. “Their best fit is expected to be where conditions are tough – whether that’s due to a later drilling date, the rotational position of the crop or site limitations, such as altitude.”


Seed production costs

Higher seed costs will be offset by the yield increase, which he anticipates will be between 3-10% for most. Grain quality is tipped to be better too, as hybrids have lower levels of fusarium due to their increased ear fertility.

“The complicated seed production system means that hybrid seed is more expensive,” he acknowledges.

“But advances have been made in this area and use of a genetically controlled sterility system will bring the costs down, as well as giving a higher, more reliable seed yield.”

Bill Angus of F1 Seed has been tasked with developing new, high-yielding germplasm to feed into Bayer’s UK hybrid programme. He is using fast-track systems wherever possible and is concentrating on flowering biology, to enhance seed production.

Germplasm development

“The best hybrids come from the best germplasm,” he points out. “At F1, we are developing new germplasm every year, so we started by broadening the genetic base.”

His breeding objectives include high-yield potential, resistance to septoria and orange wheat blossom midge and getting a strategy implemented for male plant development, as this has been a sticking point.

What is hybrid wheat?

Hybrid wheat is a cross between 2 pure lines so each hybrid variety has genes from both parents.

Combining 2 sets of genetics through cross-pollination tends to result in hybrid vigour, with the resulting varieties having higher yields and greater resilience.

Although the first commercial hybrids were available as far back as the 1970s, once chemical hybridising agents had been developed, breeding technology has moved on at a rapid pace.

More recently, genetically controlled sterility systems have been developed. These result in higher, more reliable seed production and bring the costs of hybrid seed production down.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that we need to select varieties in the UK for growing here, rather than using Continental types. That’s why Bayer has taken a more flexible approach to hybrid wheat development in this country.”

To help with this, breeding processes have been speeded up, where possible. “Single seed descent is used routinely, rather than double haploids, and we have out of season nurseries for spring or low vernalisation types.”

Flowering biology paramount

The key to hybrids is seed production, stresses Mr Angus, who adds it’s important to get as close to 100% fertility as possible for the highest seed yield. That’s why he has been developing male populations which exude larger anthers and selecting for different flowering patterns.

“Flowering biology is very important. Now hybrids can be produced by a genetic system, rather than a chemical one, we can have a protocol for reliable seed production. Things are moving forward rapidly.”

Whether hybrid varieties will suit the Recommended List testing system remains to be seen, he says.

“Hybrid wheats do better in untreated trials, as they have greater resilience. I suspect that a different protocol will have to be developed for them, just as it has with hybrid barley.”

  While the Bayer and other breeder are developing hybrids for the UK, farmers can already grow hybrids which are proving themselves in difficult growing conditions.

  Saaten Union has pioneered the development of commercially successful hybrid wheat varieties for the UK and continental European market, sold in the UK through Elsoms.
  In the UK, East Anglian agricultural merchant Cropco has carried out extensive agronomy and variety trials and found hybrids to be ideal for late drilling, aiding effective blackgrass control strategies without resorting to spring-sown crops.

  Grown on light land and under dry conditions hybrid wheat has consistently lifted whole farm averages.

  "On challenging sites that usually average less than 9t/ha (including sandy, drought-prone soils in East Anglia and Cotswold brash) hybrid wheat varieties have exceeded 14t/ha. Even December-drilled plots produced over 9.5t/ha on Suffolk sand."